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Hazel Flagg of Warsaw, Vermont receives the news that her terminal case of radium poisoning from a workplace incident was a complete misdiagnosis with mixed emotions. She is happy not to be dying, but she, who has never traveled the world, was going to use the money paid to her by her factory to go to New York in style. She believes her dreams can still be realized when Wally Cook arrives in town. He is a New York reporter with the Morning Star newspaper. He believes that Hazel's valiant struggle concerning her impending death is just the type of story he needs to resurrect his name within reporting circles after a recent story he wrote led to scandal and a major demotion at the newspaper.
For more about Nothing Sacred and the Nothing Sacred Blu-ray release, see Nothing Sacred Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on January 9, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Carole Lombard, Fredric March
Director: William A. Wellman
» See full cast & crew
Nothing Sacred Blu-ray Review
1930s Technicolor screwball at its best.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, January 9, 2012
In the late 1920s, newspapers shocked the public with horrific stories about "The Radium Girls," female employees of defense contractor US Radium who were unknowingly exposed to absurd levels of radiation while painting watch-faces with a highly toxic glow-in-the-dark paint called "Undark." Because the women were licking their brushes to keep the bristles sharpened--and even painting their nails and teeth with the substance for fun--the radium-laced paint caused their jaw bones to practically dissolve over time. An untold number were sickened, and the five women who finally banded together to sue the company barely lived long enough to collect any of the settlement money.
It's a sad story, and not one that you'd think would inspire one of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, but that's exactly what happened. Famed screenwriter Ben Hecht, best known at the time for Underworld and Scarface--although he would go on to have a hand in many classics, including Some Like It Hot and Spellbound--took inspiration from the relatively recent scandal and, adapting a short story by James H. Street, wrote Nothing Sacred, a dark and wonderfully funny satire about journalistic sensationalism and the public's love of a particularly juicy tragedy. Hecht left the project after a falling out with producer David O. Selznick, but his screenplay was finished and polished by a whole host of comic masterminds, from Dorothy Parker and Budd Schulberg to Moss Hart and Ring Lardner Jr.
The film opens in New York, where--as a tone-setting opening intertitle tells us--"the slickers and know-it-alls peddle gold bricks to each other, and where truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye." Hotshot Morning Star reporter Wallace Cook (Fredric March) knows something about phonies; he's demoted to a lowly obituary writer's position after the subject of his latest cover story turns out to be a sham. To get back in the good graces of his portly curmudgeon of an editor, Oliver (Walter Connolly), Wallace follows up on a potentially fruitful lead--a young woman in Vermont, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), who's supposedly dying from radium poisoning.
Only, she isn't. Hazel's rural crank of a physician, Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger), has been so caught up in the national radium fever that he misdiagnosed her. But here's the thing; when Hazel learns she's actually okay, she's kind of bummed out. Here, she thought she was but a few weeks away from dying--with plans to live it up in the big city while she could--but now she's back to her hum-drum small town life. When Wallace shows up, though, offering to take her to New York on The Morning Star's dime, Hazel hides her clean bill of health and takes advantage of the paper's good will. Backhanded good will, that is, as Oliver--and, to a lesser extent, Wallace--is fine with exploiting a pretty, soon-to-be-dead blond for the sake of sales.
The cynicism of the premise aside, there's nothing particularly surprising about Nothing Sacred's plot--yes, Wallace and Hazel fall in love, and yes, Hazel has to try hilariously to keep up her ruse--but the film has such a perfect balance of sharp-tongued dialogue and screwball romance that its predictability hardly matters. When Hazel arrives in New York--to a ticker-tape parade and her name spelled out in clouds by a skywriter--she's the toast of the town, celebrated for her "heroic smile in the face of death." People ooh and aah and give her sad, puppy-dog expressions. As she attends wrestling matches and posh supper clubs, a photographer is always on hand to capture her last fleeting earthly enjoyments. At one event, she passes out while being honored--she's had too much to drink, but obviously everyone thinks it's because of her condition--and Oliver, whom Wallace describes as "a birdbrain with a headline for a heart," lets his true intentions be known in one of the film's most famous quotes: "Doctor, I want to know the worst, and don't spare our feelings. We go to press in fifteen minutes!"
What stands out here is just how scathing Hecht's script is when it comes to satirizing the muckraking, tragedy-mongering tendencies of newspapers and the disingenuous sympathy of their readers, who delusionally believe--as Oliver puts it--that their "phony hearts" are "dripping with the milk of human kindness." When, in actuality, of course, they just want to gawk and gossip and revel in another's misfortune.
Nothing Sacred is dark and pointed, then--especially for its time--but the emphasis is still very much on comedy, both verbal and slapstick. In Hazel's tiny town, Wallace is viewed with instant suspicion, and when he first meets Dr. Downer, the quack sums him up immediately: "I think you're a newspaper man. I've always been able to smell 'em. Excuse me while I open a window." Later, in a weirdo moment that's funny in ways I can't even describe, a toe-headed, impish-looking bumpkin kid runs out from behind a white picket fence and bites Wallace on the back of the thigh for no apparent reason. The laughs really ramp up when Hazel starts running out of ways to hide her healthiness, not just from Wallace, but also her adoring public and a comic quartet of Europe's best doctors, who arrive to give a second opinion. The climax--and highlight--of the film is a bedroom sparring match between Wallace and Hazel, who somehow bop one another in the face lovingly. Fredric March makes a suave leading man, and the iconic Lombard almost visibly lights up the screen, giggling and crying and going charmingly hysterical in what would be her only color film.
And oh the color cinematography. Shot in gorgeous three-strip Technicolor, which, in the mid-1930s, was usually reserved for big-budget spectacles like historical epics and musicals, Nothing Sacred is also unusual in that it uses color very naturally, not as a gimmick--with gaudy, exaggerated, eye-bleeding tones--but as a complement to the story and a striving towards greater realism.
Nothing Sacred Blu-ray, Video Quality
Like other films in the public domain, Nothing Sacred has been subjected to many sub-par home video releases over the years, none of which have come close to accurately capturing the movie's Technicolor splendor. Until now. Sourced from the best materials available at the George Eastman House's film preservation division--a print that once belonged to David Selznick himself--Kino's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is a visual pleasure. We should get one thing straight first, though: unlike some of the larger studios releasing older films--Fox, Paramount, Criterion, etc.--Kino simply doesn't have the resources to remove damage and debris with frame-by-frame digital restorations. Instead, they find the cleanest prints they can, leaving scratches and specks "as is" but taking care to fix color and tonality issues, which are much easier to deal with. So yes, you can expect some mild, age- related print issues, but nothing terribly distracting--no heavy warpage, brightness fluctuations, tears, etc. Grain looks healthy and natural, and there are no signs of edge enhancement or other forms of digital boosting. Clarity is much improved over prior standard definition releases, but what's even more impressive is the careful reproduction of the film's creamy, smooth-toned color palette. There are sometime hue shifts between shots-- especially in skintones, which can vary between pale and very ruddy--but overall I was really impressed by the consistency and stability of this transfer.
Nothing Sacred Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Kino's Blu-ray release also noticeably improves the film's audio with a Linear PCM 2.0 track that sounds a good deal cleaner and less crackle-prone than previous versions. You'll still hear some clicks and pops and splices on occasion, but the overall level of hissy noise has been diminished, leaving dialogue consistently clear and actor/composer Oscar Levant's lush, romantic score sounding richer and fuller than ever. Like most films from this era, of course, the EQ is a bit top-heavy, but the mix is far from brash or tinny. The only oversight I can see here is that Kino hasn't included any subtitle options whatsoever, which is unfortunate for those who might need or want them.
Nothing Sacred Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
I would've loved a retrospective on Lombard or a commentary by a film historian or preservationist, but the only bonus features on the disc are trailers for Nothing Sacred, A Star is Born, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
Nothing Sacred Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Nothing Sacred is a darkly funny farce, a whip-smart satire on journalistic sensationalism and the faux-sentimentality of a tragedy-loving public. It's one of the great screwball comedies of the '30s, one of Carole Lombard's best roles--it was supposedly her own personal favorite--and it was shot in beautiful, understated Technicolor, a real rarity in its time for a film in this genre. After years of unsatisfying releases with poor transfers and sound, the film finally gets the treatment it deserves with Kino's fine-looking Blu-ray. A few bonus features would've been nice, but I'm just glad to see more films from the 1930s getting released in high definition. Highly recommended!
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